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FT 514: Advanced Television Writing

       At the end of his book on Documentaries, which I use as a text in my documentary class, the venerable historian of broadcasting Erik Barnouw writes:   

       This passage neatly summarizes the critical debate that has long taken place over the status of the docu-drama or drama-documentary. What are the boundaries between fact and fiction? What can legitimately be invented or changed for the dramatic presentation of real events involving actual people?

       The drama-documentary form is one of the most popular on television. Scarcely a week goes by without a new offering. The Amy Fisher story was presented in three different versions shown within days of each other on the three main networks in late December 1992 and early January 1993. An entertainment attorney worked out that over a two year period, in which Hearst produced 27 movies for television, 22 of them were docu-dramas. Hallmark Inc continues this tradition with movies of the week and mini-series epics.

       But it is a form that is also one of the most criticized, by professional historians, journalists, and television critics alike. One former head of a television network news division called docu-drama "the most corruptive force in journalism." "The Basic Crookedness of Docu-dramas," was a typical newspaper headline that appeared in late 1989. An op-ed piece by William Safire in The New York Times in November 1995 carried the subheading: "Lies, damned lies and docu-dramas." "Docu-Junk " is another term of abuse favored by some critics. In an article in The New York Times magazine of March 1997 Max Frankel wrote: “Docudramas put indelible words, thoughts and motives into their characters’ mouths, heads and hearts. They damage the appeal of fiction and corrode the meaning of truth.” The 1999 biography “Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan”, by the respected historian Edmund Morris, ran into trouble from critics because the author, for literary reasons, invented a character in the book - a version of himself as Mr. Reagan’s friend and contemporary. We will be looking at criticisms like these.

       In this course students develop their writing skills in this popular, but controversial, program form. Each student will research and write his/her own treatment and script segment for a docu-drama on a subject of his/her own choice. At the same time we will discuss the critical issues raised by this dramatic form and some students may be called on to lead these discussions, bringing examples to class.

       An important component of the course is for students to have their treatments and script segments read and discussed in class. For this to work for the benefit of all, we must keep to the schedule in the syllabus. Each one of you will be responsible for having your material ready for class reading according to this schedule, or as amended with my agreement.

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